Lost Revenue & Customs Data Discs

Alistair Darling has invented a kind of reverse National Lottery, in which the giant finger hovers over our streets. It could be you

Labour’s new lottery: You could be ripped off

In the annals of government cock-up, this is surely the single most astonishing and ludicrous episode of the past 25 years.

I cannot think of another minister who has looked as overwhelmed, as hapless, as altogether washed-up as Alistair Darling, when he announced that the intimate financial details of 25 million Britons had been lost – lost – by the ministry entrusted with their safekeeping.

Across the nation there will now be millions of families in states ranging from vague anxiety to panic. As they fight off the urge to ring their bank and verify the continued existence of their life savings, I want to console everyone with two bits of good news.


The first is that this marks the final disintegration of the Labour Government, and the second is that the police do not so far have any evidence that the two discs have been stolen.

It may be that they have simply been mislaid. That’s right: they could be propping up a wobbly table in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, in Washington, Tyne and Wear.

Perhaps they have already reached London, but have been mysteriously mistaken for beer mats; or perhaps the teenage child of some postal worker has inadvertently removed them to play them on his or her personal stereo. Those are just some of the optimistic scenarios.

I am incorrigibly determined to look on the bright side of life. And yet we must accept that there is a small chance that someone has nicked them, and that even now the open sesame to millions of bank accounts is in the hands of crooks.

It may be that a gang of scammers is out there somewhere, busting their pants with laughter, and wondering which of the multitudes of quivering potential victims they are first going to defraud.

Alistair Darling has invented a kind of reverse National Lottery, in which the giant finger hovers over our streets. It could be you. It could be me – and what will happen to the victims? I will tell you.

Invisibly, inaudibly, without so much as a whoosh or a slurp, large sums will disappear from our bank accounts. Funny entries will appear on our statements – and by the time we have worked out what is happening, it will be far, far too late.

A couple of years ago, I got back from a family holiday to find that my bank account had taken a quite amazing battering.

I knew that the thing had been expensive, but nothing we had done accounted for the emaciated condition of the bottom line.

I ran my eye down the entries, and found all sorts of payments I didn’t recognise: it seemed I’d bought something costing £754 at lastminute.com; and – help – I’d made a payment of £1,000 to a bank called Egg.

With the cry of one who realises that a giant tapeworm is coiled in his innards, devouring his substance, I realised I had been diddled.

I sprang to the phone, and to the immense credit of Barclays, it instantly sorted it all out. It just asked me to read out all the entries that looked dodgy, and then, slosh, it gave me the money back.

I was very grateful, but I had to admit I was puzzled at the no-questions-asked approach.

Surely, I inquired, this was a serious criminal matter. Surely they had an electronic trail that would allow them to collar whichever swine had ripped us off; surely they weren’t going to take this lying down.

What are you going to do to catch the thieves? I asked. “Not a lot, I am afraid, sir,” said the fellow, and explained that it wasn’t really worth the effort.

The hunt for the criminals would be expensive; it would involve many lawyers, and it might not come off.

It was more economical for the banks just to take the hit and move on; and I remember being indignant at the time, because it struck me as quite wrong in principle that someone should be allowed to get away with a brazen act of theft.

However rational it might appear, this apathy by the banks was setting a very bad precedent. If people know that they are unlikely to be pursued, then they will simply come back for more.

I make this point because only two weeks ago I got a letter from the Egg bank, informing me that it had turned down my request to open an account. Eh? I thought, and then I realised that they were at it again.

Someone had tried to open an Egg account in my name, presumably to start siphoning funds out of Barclays, and for all I know it is the same people who robbed me last time, and who should have been pursued, prosecuted and jailed.

When you hear these stories, and you look at your email inbox, and you see all the absurd phishing expeditions by pseudo-banks, it is easy to get the impression that we are surrounded by circling dorsal fins of innumerable would-be fraudsters.

Worse, we have this sense that we don’t know where most of them are, in the vast wastes of cyberspace, and we don’t know how they will make their attack. They could be bugging our phones; they could be secretly photographing us at the bank machine.

In those circumstances, we want to be absolutely certain that our information is treated with respect by the people in government agencies to whom we are obliged to give it.

What is so appalling about the present episode is the casualness, the condescending indifference on the part of the state towards the privacy of British people.

This is how they treat vital personal information – allowing a junior official to burn it on to several discs, and then losing it in the mail.

How dare these people continue to make the case for ID cards? How dare they claim that they can be trusted with any more of our data?

The argument is lost, and before the Government wastes £10 billion of our money, it should run up the white flag and withdraw the Bill. I’m sorry, Darling, but it’s over.

22 thoughts on “Lost Revenue & Customs Data Discs”

  1. The hunt for the criminals would be expensive; it would involve many lawyers, and it might not come off.

    It was more economical for the banks just to take the hit and move on; and I remember being indignant at the time, because it struck me as quite wrong in principle that someone should be allowed to get away with a brazen act of theft.

    The main problem the banks have is that chasing criminals is a police matter requiring police powers. Quite rightly – and this should not be changed – bank investigators do not have the power to seize evidence (unless they go through the expensive legal checking necessary to get whatever an ‘Anton Piller’ order is now called.) This is especially difficult where, as is common, the fraudsters are not based in the UK. Where things happen online or via the telephone, you often need police-equivalent powers as soon as you exit the systems directly under bank control (i.e. to find out who was using an IP address or mobile telephone.) Even then, especially in the computer case, you often find somebody who has either been conned into taking part in the scam or has had their computer infected by some virus and is unaware what evils it is getting up to.

    So it is up to the police. You had lost under GBP2000 which was, congrats to Barclays, almost immediately refunded – net cost to you – stress, time and inconvenience. Net cost to Barclay’s shareholders – frankly, a small %age of their annual gross. Is this worth significant police resource? Not under their current, politician-imposed priorities and directives.

    Should police funding be changed to allow or require them to undertake the large numbers necessary of these sorts of technical and international investigations (without some spending obsessive worrying about hotel bills in St Petersburg or Lagos)? We are hardly going to want them to minimise their public safety work in this time of terrorist threat and, very shortly, boozy office Christmas parties.

    I think they should – individual force Computer Crime Units, the City Police Fraud team and the Met CCU, and the two national units (SOCA and the SCDEA up here in the frozen north). But that takes political effort. Here, Boris, is where you could make a difference.

  2. Twenty-five years ago; 1982. Presumably the disaster you’re alluding to would be the invasion of the Falkland Islands?

  3. In the annals of government cock-up, this is surely the single most astonishing and ludicrous episode of the past 25 years.

    You got that right Boris.

    Oh and I think your comments on housing were spot on too.

  4. Is this one bigger than the poll tax? I think so. Pity Mr Brown regards this gross breach of our privacy a mere “inconvenience”

  5. You couldn’t make it up, really.

    But it’s fairly obvious, on reflection, that if information is going to be centralised in this way, sooner or later someone was going to put it all on a CD, and stick it in the post. It was an accident waiting to happen.

    And this applies in spades to ID cards. Is there any reason to suppose that the information on those cards will be treated any more carefully? Not really. The ID card central computer will become a magnet for ID fraudsters. The most secure encryption devices are of no real use if privileged users are allowed to skip round the encrypted security systems, as clearly happened here. And they always will be able to. Every door has a key that someone can use to open it.

  6. If we didn’t have such an absurdly complicated benefits and tax system the risks would be lower, though not eliminated.

    Every government ‘initiative’ is followed by millions more computer records and confidential papers piling up on the desks of junior civil servants, ready to cause a disaster like this.

    Dump the lot.

  7. Let’s face it Boris it’s not the first this so called government has made mistakes over the year is it? It’s starting to look like children playing with big toys and not sure what to do.

    I suppose the ID card is now dead in its track as i for one don’t trust labour to hold any personal data on me from past experience I know government departments are lapse in data protection.

    Just hope Cameron keeps the pressure up.

  8. “In the annals of government cock-up, this is surely the single most astonishing and ludicrous episode of the past 25 years.”

    Forgetting the ERM fiasco then? You talk about people being anxious and worried – how about people losing their homes and throwing themselves off buildings?

    I’m a staunch supporter, but I feel that such wide sweeping statements are always a mistake – careful next time Boris!

  9. Boris,

    Do you not think that the money spent pursuing these crooks is not better spent shoring up their systems? The Banks are continually looking for ways to make transactions more secure, such as Chip and PIN, and more recently PayPal have created a way to generate a new credit card number for every transaction.

    I’m a big fan of yours, but on this issue I think you are under informed. People have to understand that there will always be someone trying to steal their money, and not all of the responsibility can be put on banks.

  10. There’s nothing wrong with ID cards as long as that’s all they are. Nobody objects to carrying a drivers license what’s wrong with an ID card with one’s name, address and social security number on it?

    Maybe add a chip, a proper one with diversified asymetric encryption (for preference) that has the aforementioned details on it so we can secure our bank accounts or, should we see fit, open our front doors with it.

    But the problem is that a device like that is just too tempting.

    Let’s stick the user’s weight on there and see if the ‘client’ is going to be a burden on the national health service at some point in the future; let’s have a record of EVERY bank account he/she has so they’ll be none of this evil closeting of hard earned cash in secret accounts that Mr Brown is undoubtedly keen to get his quivering mitts on.

    Better yet, let’s bung on any criminal convictions so, in the event that our hero gets stopped by the feds, they know if he’s got form and they can fit him up for any unsolved crimes that fit the profile.

    In fact, we could make this card the only way one can legally access the internet! Then we can collar those nasty child pornographers (and incidentally spot anyone making uncalled for criticism of our wonderful government)

    And then, when we’ve got all this LOVELY dirt on every voter in the United Kingdom, let’s send it second class to our mates in the treasury once a week to see how often it arrives safely.

    There are cabbages in my garden that would fall to achieve this level of ineptitude .

  11. Agree with you about ID cards. We need to protect the privacy and safety of our children at all costs. The sheer incompetence of this data loss beggars belief. Who decided to merge the Revenue and Customs anyway? That gentleman should bear a great deal of the responsibility for this fiasco.

  12. Nonsense Boris, they’ll just use this as a way of scaring people into wanting to go biometric.

    I’ve had my bank card cloned before. HSBC telephoned me one morning to ask me if I had been using it in Romford. Their fraud triggers had picked up the fraudulent transactions. They were given away, I was told, by the fact that the fraudster had used the card to make small �1 purchases as a test before moving onto bigger purchases.

    Surely if the banks and other companies can identify cases of fraud from monitoring patterns of behaviour there could be some kind of police computer system to do the same thing and alert the cops to suspected instances of fraud taking place. I bet it would cost less that ten-billion quid to make such a system too.

    [Ed: alternatively AN Bank will allow purchases on the same card at much the same time in both Street (Somerset) and Malta within minutes of each other…. Perhaps banks have not got it quite right, either…?]

  13. Now for ID cards: Tsutomu Matsumoto is a Japanese mathematician, a cryptographer who works on security, and he decided to see if he could fool the machines which identify you by your fingerprint. This home science project costs about �20. Take a finger and make a cast with the moulding plastic sold in hobby shops. Then pour some liquid gelatin (ordinary food gelatin) into that mould and let it harden. Stick this over your finger pad: it fools fingerprint detectors about 80% of the time. The joy is, once you’ve fooled the machine, your fake fingerprint is made of the same stuff as fruit pastilles, so you can simply eat the evidence.

    Guardian, Ben Goldacre, 24 Nov

  14. “I don’t look at opinion polls, what I do look at is, what is your record on the ground”

    -Gordon Brown

    Apropos nothing, I felt moved to share this with you. I think Nero said something similar, only in Latin, obviously.

  15. A similar thing happened to me as to Boris (about 2-3 years ago?). �1000 got lifted from my account by fraudsters passing themselves off as some Egg company. Then, a few days later, another �195 (or thereabouts) disappeared.

    And yes, Abbey National paid up very quickly (to my heartfelt relief). I wonder if, by then, word had got around the banks and they’d already received calls from other people, so knew what was happening?

    They did then monitor my account for a while. Unfortunately, this slightly backfired as I didn’t know they were doing it. A few weeks later, I was in Croatia and, while there, took a day trip to Montenegro, where I tried to get some cash out of a machine and was refused. I got a bit of a fright, but things were fine again once I’d returned to Croatia.

    Back in London, I asked them what had happened. They said that the money had been blocked because they found it suspicious that the same account should be used in 2 separate countries within such a short space of time. They were trying to protect me… Obviously, they hadn’t realised how near to each other the 2 places are! However, I suppose that they did try…

  16. Haha boris spot on! You truly are the most hilarious politician I have ever come across! I would definetely be voting you for Mayor Boris, no questions asked! You are a true legend, and also a great representative of what the Tory party and England stand for! Undoubtedly the best Tory party in years, we will “evict the Giant Newts from Westminster” won’t we Boris? Boris you are a legend!

    [Ed: Boris as an unsubstantiated myth???]

  17. I couldn’t get onto the Hilary Clinton debate, but have to say WE NEED OBAMA to heal the wounds of the Iraq war, if nothing else, (if he can manage to dump Oprah, she is lowering the tone). Why praise Hilary for standing by Bill, the prurient interest of the press and public is the problem. People’s love lives are their own affair, and the press coverage about Bill was the disgusting thing, not anything that actually happened in his private life, which is his business and Hilary’s.

    As for the lost DVDs, crikey, I hope it is not Spencer Perceval all over again, the way things are going for Gordon. He is a jittering nervous wreck, lurching from one mishap to another, while Alastair Darling faffs around in the background to the swirl of bagpipes. JEEZ how long are we going to have to suffer the bumblings of these two incompetents?

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